All The Black is Ripe in Green (The Last War in Albion Part 57: The Burial, Rape)

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This is the seventh of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding volume 3-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.


Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore resurrected the Jack Kirby creation Etrigan for his second arc of Swamp Thing, taking particular relish in writing the demon's rhyming dialogue, such as an extended monologue in sonnet form beginning "The toys about the nursery are set, for idiot chaos to arrange at whim"

"God will bury you. Nature will bury you. Time will bury your bones unseen. Total and absolute. Infinite amplitude. Till all the black is ripe in green." -Seeming, "The Burial"

“The toys about the nursery are set, for idiot chaos to arrange at whim. He drools and ruins lives, his chin is wet and old or young, it matters not to him. The gracious lady and her root-choked beast have come to save the innocents from harm, to spare them from the monkey’s dreadful feast. What noble souls they have! What charm! And see! The children’s uproar brings to life their guardians: that most dedicated breed! Yet she betrays her husband, he his wife, though both of them are kind to babes in need. Should innocence be mollycoddled thus? I fail to see the reason for the fuss,” he says, before continuing with a few more stanzas. It is perhaps no surprise that Moore would excel at writing Etrigan, given that his speech patterns allowed Moore to slip into the iambic rhythm he usually relies on to make a passage bigger and more portentous. 

Figure 421: Matt Cable, dying from a
drunken car crash, is possessed by a demonic
force in the form of a housefly. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #27,
1984. Click to enlarge.)
The second arc introduced other sizable elements of Moore’s run as well, however. On a story level, it continues a plot that Moore inherited from Pasko regarding Matt Cable and his descent into alcoholism. Moore has Cable get into a drunken car crash that kills him, allowing a mysterious spirit appearing in the form of a fly that offers to save him and that then crawls into his mouth, seemingly possessing him. On a practical level, it introduced a new editor for Moore in the form of Karen Berger, who would edit the remainder of his Swamp Thing run before going on to oversee the recruitment of other British writers and artists to create comics in a similar vein. Of the editors that Moore has worked with, there are perhaps none that he praises as unreservedly as he does Berger, who remained essentially the only figure at DC that Moore would actually speak to all the way until her departure from the company in 2013. It is tempting, especially given Moore’s tendency to complain about editors who he feels overstep their bounds, to suggest that Moore’s fondness for Berger was simply because she was inclined to get out of his way and let him tell the stories he wanted to tell, and it certainly is true that Berger gave Moore considerable creative freedom and generally backed and supported his instincts. But the interplay between them was always much more subtle than that - a fact that would be demonstrated clearly by Moore’s next story arc.

Having completed seven straight monthly issues of transformative and groundbreaking horror comics, Bissette and Totleben were by this point in need of a break before starting on this arc, however. The production schedule of American comics takes into account that few artists can actually maintain a monthly pace of twenty-three pages, especially not as more and more detailed and intricate art styles became increasingly popular with readers. Accordingly, the norm is to draft fill-in artists. Often these stories are what are known as inventory stories - ones solicited with the express purpose of being kept until the production schedule slips behind - other times they’re simply stories written as a break from the overall serialized narrative. In either case, they are typically self-contained, single-issue stories that do not rely on other plot elements - stories featuring a guest star or retellings of the main character’s origin are both common approaches. And so when the schedule grew tight after the Etrigan arc, Shawn MacManus was drafted in for “The Burial,” a story that in effect recapped Swamp Thing’s new origin, with Swamp Thing finding himself haunted by the ghost of the real Alec Holland, and thus being drawn to crawl the swamp for his bones and to give him a burial. Neil Gaiman suggests that the point of the story is as “a celebration of and memorial to the original Len Wein and Berni Wrightson” Swamp Thing, and this is certainly part of the story’s point, but it serves a second and pragmatic purpose as well. With the series’ new direction gaining considerable buzz, reintroducing the book’s new premise and re-explaining the relationship between Moore’s stories and the traditional Swamp Thing readers might be used to was a savvy move.

Figure 422: Shawn McManus's approach
to drawing Swamp Thing was noticeably
more cartoonish than Bissette and Totleben's.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #28, 1984)
MacManus gave “The Burial” a cleaner, crisper style that throw’s Bissette and Totleben’s tense and scratchy style into relief, such that the story feels as though it has taken a step backwards towards Wrightson’s art. Under MacManus’s pencil, Swamp Thing becomes a slightly cartoonish character, his mossy face given an added range of expression so that he can gape, horrified at the ghosts around him. The story is a slender thing, to be sure, but a needed breather after seven issues of white-knuckled and cutting edge horror. Moore, for his part, noted MacManus’s more cartoonish style, and developed an idea for future use. 

By this time, the success of Moore’s Swamp Thing work had caused some major shifts to the overall shape of his career. Moore started his career in 1979 eager to make £42.50 a week - the figure he’d been receiving when on welfare. Swamp Thing, however, paid $50 a page, which worked out to around £850 an issue, or nearly £200 a week, more than quadruple his initial benchmark for success, and solidly above the average income in the UK at the time. And it was not as though Swamp Thing was occupying his every waking hour. In fact, Moore could work out scripts fairly quickly. The script for Swamp Thing #29, for instance, was written in a two-day rush. Where in 1981 he was making between £60 and £90 for a day’s work, now he was making £425. This also meant that there was no reason to make Swamp Thing his only source of income.

Figure 423: Alan Moore and Ian Gibson's The
Battle of Halo Jones
 began in July 1984, the
same month that Saga of the Swamp Thing #29
came out.
Nevertheless, financial success once again allowed him to pick and choose his work, much as the beginning of Skizz had allowed him to finally drop the time-consuming and comparatively ill-paying The Stars My Degradation a few months earlier. As mentioned, Moore stopped doing short stories for IPC as soon as his Swamp Thing work commenced. A year or so after starting Swamp Thing, Moore also dropped Captain Britain, frustrated both with Marvel UK’s less than prompt payments and the sacking of Bernie Jaye. Two months later, in August of 1984, he dropped Marvelman after an explosive blow-up with editor Dez Skinn, although he would continue to write V for Vendetta until Warrior finally went under in February of 1985. For the time being he continued his 2000 AD work, starting a new project, The Ballad of Halo Jones, in July of 1984, and contributing a few short stories featuring the ABC Warriors and the Robusters for the 1985 annual. 

The same month that Halo Jones started, Moore published what would turn out to be one of the most historically significant issues of his Swamp Thing run. Following MacManus’s fill-in, Moore planned to have Bissette and Totleben draw “The Nukeface Papers,” an arc about nuclear pollution. Karen Berger, however, felt that this was not the right move for the book’s momentum, and had Moore shelve the story, leading Moore to quickly develop a story featuring the return of Swamp Thing’s one significant recurring villain, Anton Arcane. On one level, this move threatened to render the book formulaic. With the exception of “The Burial,” all of Moore’s Swamp Thing issues since “The Anatomy Lesson” have been three-part story lines following a relatively consistent pattern whereby the first issue features some malignant presence infecting the world, the second brings Swamp Thing to the point of confronting this presence, and the third finally resolves the plot. Repeating this basic story structure with a villain who had made a big return just ten issues earlier at the end of Martin Pasko’s run - feels ever so slightly stale.

Figure 424: This two-page spread, revealing that Abby has been the victim
of zombie incest rape from Anton Arcane, proved to be of remarkable
historical importance. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, 1984)
It is not that the Arcane arc is a bad story. Indeed, it’s quite effective. The first issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, titled “Love and Death,” in which Abby steadily goes mad under Arcane’s psychic assault, has a grim and unsettlingly visceral sense of horror that outstrips any of Moore’s earlier work on the title. On a superficial level this visceral horror stems from the depiction of Abby curled up on the floor in shades of red and sickly yellow, with insects crawling all about her as Moore’s narration describes how “she couldn’t get rid of the smell. In the shower she used up all of the soap, the shampoo, the bubble-bath, the perfume… the smell was still there.” But the issue’s horror exists beneath the surface. Over the course of the issue Abby’s descent into madness is explained through a series of flashbacks in which she comes to realize that something is deeply wrong with her husband. Eventually she concludes, correctly, that he’s undead and possessed by something, revealed in a grotesque double page spread at the issue’s end to be Anton Arcane. This double page spread, in which her demonically possessed husband grabs her by the hair as she’s surrounded by a group of reanimated corpses, revealed now to be rotting zombies, and answers her question of “what do you want me to say” with the grotesque incest pun of “just say uncle,” proved, for several reasons, to be a historical turning point.

Figure 425: Abby's rape is metaphorically represented by
the invasion and infestation of her body with insects.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, 1984)
For one thing, it was one of Moore’s first engagements with a theme that would recur across his career - one whose frequency would ultimately provide one of the most common lines of criticism of his work: rape. Indeed, the incestuous rape of a character via the spiritual possession of her husband’s dead body is a strong contender for the single most horrific and disturbing rape in Moore’s oeuvre - a body of work in which it does, indeed, have an awful lot of competition. This would be true even if Bissette, Totleben, and colourist Tatjana Wood hadn’t outdone themselves in the gruesome and insect-ridden artwork, simply on the basis of the conceptual horror. With the artwork, it is a scene that is unprecedented in mainstream American comics - one that makes S. Clay Wilson’s cartoonish tableaus of demonic orgies look like lighthearted fun in comparison. 

This was, of course, the point. In a lengthy response made in 2014 to criticisms about the prevalence of rape in his comics, Moore notes that in 2013 “there were 60,000 rapes in the UK. I’m assuming that this is reported rapes, and that actual incidents of rape are possibly two or three times as high. There were a further 400,000 cases of sexual assault, and a frankly horrific 1.2 million cases of domestic abuse. Leaving aside the sexual assault and domestic abuse figures and just focussing on the rapes – which is of course rather my ‘thing’ – I would have to say that I do not recall the sixty thousand homicides that occurred in the U.K. last year, possibly because – well, they didn’t, did they?” He goes on to note that, given this, it is telling that in fiction the rates are reversed such that violent death is considerably more common than rape. “Why,” Moore asks, “should sexual violence be ring-fenced when forms of violence every bit as devastating are treated as entertainment? If I may venture an answer to my own question, might it be because the term ‘sexual violence’ contains the word ‘sexual’, a word relating to matters traditionally not discussed in polite society?” Moore suggests that the failure to engage with the prevalence of rape constitutes “the denial of a sexual holocaust, happening annually” before declaring that he “could not, in all conscience, produce work under those limitations without at least attempting to change or remove them. Presumably, my current critics would have done differently, and indeed, as I remember, most people in the field found it more convenient simply not to address issues of sex or sexuality – or those of race, politics, gender and any other matters of social substance, for that matter.”

Figure 426: Swamp Thing discovers that
Arcane has killed Abby. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben,
from Saga of the Swamp Thing #30, 1984)
The point, in other words, is that Moore opts to depict rape specifically because of its horror, and furthermore because he views that horror as the flipside of his interest in depicting “consensual and relatively joyous sexual relationships” as part of his conscious decision to “along with political and social issues… make sexual issues a part of my work.” The demonic rape of Abby is included specifically to be exactly as horrific as it appears. And yet given this, the criticism of Moore’s handling of rape are in many ways solid. While Moore is clearly committed to the depiction of rape as something awful, the truth is that he rather egregiously ducks the consequences of depicting it. Abby dies midway through the issue following the revelation of her rape, and when she is resurrected in the 1985 Swamp Thing Annual it is with no memory of what happened. For all that “Love and Death” focuses on her trauma, the subsequent issues can fairly be criticized for being a fairly banal saga of men taking vengeance on other men for terrible things that have been done to women. In this regard rape is troublingly severed from the corresponding issue of survivorship. It becomes an object of spectacle as opposed to a real experience to be engaged with, so that its horror is not the lived experience of rape but rather the conceptual horror of the basic phenomenon of rape. Once the immediate and traumatic agony of her rape is over, Abby becomes little more than a prop for another plot. 

In many ways this distinction underlies the entire debate over Moore’s use of rape and, more broadly, its consequences for the subsequent history of American comics. Moore, after all, had already criticized the depiction of sexual violence in comics back in his “Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies” essay in The Daredevils, where he blasted the tendency for comics to “start dishing up evil, sordid little adult fantasies,” particularly highlighting the use of bondage. [continued]

Comments

Gallifreyan_Immigrant 2 years, 10 months ago

Hi. I just wanted to give an update on the Ferguson situation. It seems like things are gatting better--we're having peaceful protests again, and apparently highway patrol stepped up to help with the situation (completely different guys from the SWAT-like police who was causing all the problems). Let's hope this peace lasts, and that this country takes some serious lessons on police militarization from this. Again, here's the St Louis subreddit for updates (I think BerserkRL's also keeping track of the situation):http://www.reddit.com/r/StLouis/
Again, thank you for letting me post, Dr. Sandifer (how do you prefer to be addressed?). Everyone, have a good weekend. .

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Sean Case 2 years, 10 months ago

There's a foot missing from that sonnet.

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 10 months ago

God this is getting good. Reading Swamp Thing for the first time several years ago I had genuine trouble making it through this issue...or rather the part of the omnibus that contained them. It took me three attempts to make it through in one sitting. As good as it is, I doubt it's ever something I'll revisit.

Also I love the way you use the term "Zombie incest rape" so casually. It gives me a chuckle.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 10 months ago

And there should be no apostrophe in "throws".

But, yeah, not putting the sonnet in sonnet form makes it harder to parse, I think.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 10 months ago

A bit of Etrigan's dialogue appear's in Figure 420 of the previous post, but perhaps not enough to illustrate a key point about it, which is that although it is structured like a sonnet, it is delivered as straightforward comic dialogue that is no more stylized than anyone else's. There are no explicit linebreaks in it, in other words, and I treated it accordingly in quoting it.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 10 months ago

That was a deliberate choice, as it sets up a large part of where I'm going with this argument, which is that whatever Moore's well-worked philosophical justifications for his depiction of rape, the fact that you have to use the phrase "zombie incest rape" when discussing it undermines claims of seriousness.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 10 months ago

Another from my gang plus one from the Eruditorum community.

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Daru 2 years, 4 months ago

Very uncomfortable reading when I first read the rape storyline, as the images of the insects 'got under my skin' and I was left with not only and emotional, but also a very visceral resonance from the story.

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